Those of you who have been visiting this silly yellow page for the past few years know that I get a little touchy on subjects like gentrification and the explosion of luxury housing construction in New York City. I have been accused of romanticizing the past, of vilifying the people and businesses who would make the city better, of wishing we could go back to the good old days of skyrocketing murder rates and gauntlets of junkies in city parks. While I can understand these opinions, I can’t agree with them. I do remember when New York City was an easier place to live if you weren’t making hedge-fund money, when you could work a crummy low-level publishing job and still luck into a sublet you didn’t have to share with six other people. I remember hearing live music every night, going to no-cover gigs and dancing without worrying about whether I was violating arcane cabaret laws by doing so. I miss that, terribly. I remember being able to buy fabulous pastries at Lafayette Bakery in the West Village without having to sell blood to pay for it. I miss that, too. I also remember being followed to work by filthy-talking perverts taking advantage of my Girl Walking Alone status, and witnessing an escalating argument over cocaine between two dealers in front of my apartment building. I don’t miss that at all. What I do miss, most of all, is a sense of place, of knowing that there was room for you in New York even if you weren’t making, and spending, piles of money. I have no objection to fancy restaurants, or wine bars, or luxe coffeehouses, or even giant expensive ugly apartments, just as long as they aren’t the only game in town. When there is plenty of housing to be had for the moneyed, but not for their administrative assistants, or the guys who park their cars, or the cooks and waiters who make their dinners, or the bookstore clerks who sell their entertainments, I get a little tetchy. When a 30-year-old French bakery loses its lease so that an Ann Taylor store can turn into an even-bigger Ann Taylor store, my heart breaks. And when a beautiful old building, originally built as a clinic for the poor, recently serving as a branch of the New York Public Library, starts sporting signs reading “Buy This Mansion,” I want to start breaking stuff. I know I’m not alone in my despair, but it is easy to feel alone, particularly when I walk around the city on a nice day and find myself surrounded by adverts inviting the reader to “make Manhattan your own” or “possess your own Soho”. Somehow I do not think these folks are speaking to me.
Thankfully, I am not alone. I am lucky enough to have Bunni and Julie in my life. Not only do they understand my rantiness on this issue—Bunni’s neighborhood has no fewer than four new luxury buildings going up within two blocks of her apartment, while Julie’s neighborhood has been rechristened SpaHa by builders and brokers hot to gentrify—but they also know that the best tonic for this sort of existential dread is to be in each other’s company. If we happen to be having a really nice meal while in each other’s company, so much the better. And if we can have that nice meal in a small sweet neighborhood space, the kind where the owners are more concerned with providing really good food than with establishing a see-and-be-seen vibe, and where we can feel, even temporarily, the sense of place and belonging that brought us to New York in the first place, then existential dread doesn’t stand a chance.
“Allright, my little turtledoves,” Bunni wrote to me and Julie one night. Of course we listened, closely. Of course she knew we would say yes.
Bunni’s proposal was that we go to dinner at Panorama, just opened in her neighborhood—or, rather, reopened. I had been to Panorama before when it was Panorama Cafe, located in a swell two-floor, iron-terraced corner building on Second Avenue and East 85th Street. I had eaten some decent salads, some truly good omelettes and some regrettable bread. I’d never ordered wine on any of these visits; as far as I was concerned, Panorama was a brunch restaurant, or the place you went when you wanted a big salad and an iced tea. You might not eat fancily, but odds were good you would eat decently. When I learned that Panorama had lost its lease, I felt that old familiar sinking in my heart: another low-key neighborhood fixture bites the dust. When Bunni told me that Panorama was not closing, but rather moving to the space that M. Rohrs’ House of Fine Teas and Coffees vacated when they moved to their new space on East 86th Street, I was glad to hear that Panorama had a home, but baffled by the thought of it moving into Rohrs’ old space. I knew the old Rohrs’ well. The space was tiny, cramped and a fraction of the space in Panorama’s old location. How in the world were they going to do it?
I am pleased to say that they did it, and they did it well. Admittedly, a meal at the new Panorama is more expensive than at the old Panorama, but not extortionately so; depending on whether you want a full three-course meal with wine or a small plate or two, you can eat for $50 per person, or for $20, or more or less or points between. The bread is much better now, and served with olive oil pressed from olives grown on the owners’ farm. The new wine list is small but impressive: I had a Rodney Strong pinot noir with my appetizer and a malbec with my entree, as well as a taste of the viognier Julie had with her meal, and was so delighted with everything I tried that I’m all set to come back and try the wine flights once Panorama rolls them out. The space is beautiful, with exposed brick walls and warm lighting, surprisingly airy and wide-open. It is not the tiny, packed-to-the-rafters space that Rohrs’ occupied.
Of course, all of this would be a moot point if I didn’t love the food.
My salad, a lovely thing made from mixed greens, orange and grapefruit sections, toasted almonds and strawberry vinaigrette. I am only a little ashamed to admit that I ate a sizable portion of this salad without utensils, although I stopped short of licking the plate clean. Mmmm, vinaigrette.
For entrees, we opted for pasta, and plenty of it. Julie was intrigued by the lobster ravioli on the menu, but was also intrigued by the cardinale sauce (white wine, tomatoes, garlic, shrimp and cherry tomatoes) that was featured on one of the other pasta dishes. She asked the waitress if the kitchen would be willing to dress the ravioli with the cardinale sauce, and happiness!, they did:
Bunni, no fool she, ordered the paglia y fieno (green and white pasta, peas and prosciutto), which I’m definitely ordering on the next visit:
I meanwhile, did something I haven’t done since I was a little kid. Although I’ve made meat sauces for pasta at home, I almost never order them in restaurants, but for some reason, something about a big bowl of spaghetti dressed with meat and mushrooms and tomatoes called out to me that night.
Not surprisingly, by the end of all this, even without cleaning our plates, even with having enough to take home, we had to forgo dessert, which was a shame because I do like to leave room for tirami su. I’m not complaining, though. The three of us came to dinner with minds full of trouble and hearts full of worry, and there will be plenty more of that to come. For three hours, anyway, we were in a warm, well-lit room, enjoying each other’s company, eating and drinking wonderful things made for us by people more concerned with their food and their atmosphere than with courting celebrities, feeling the sense of place and belonging that is all too elusive for us in our own city these days. That’s my kind of Friday night.
303 East 85th Street (between 2nd and 1st Aves.)
New York, NY 10028
Edit: Bunni has informed me that Panorama is now serving weekend brunch and a sandwich menu. Woohoo!